This year’s Forbes’ billionaires list shows a super rich elite getting richer as most European citizens get poorer
A tiny elite are getting richer, the rest of us are getting poorer.
This is a familiar story in a world where greed and extreme wealth are central to the dominant capitalist system, and its periodic crises, of which this one is the worse since the 1930s.
The annual Forbes billionaires list is an opportunity to test politicians promises that we are really ‘All In It Together’. That they are fairly spreading the heavy doses of austerity medicine.
What the list tells us – with a record number of billionaires, worth a record fortune – is that that’s a big fat lie.
The latest Forbes ranking, totalling a record 1,426 super rich (120 more than last year), globally represents a fortune of $5.4 trillion. That’s up from the $4.6 trillion a year earlier. As you might expect, the United States continues to dominate the list, with 442 super-rich, followed by Asia Pacific, with 386, and rest of the Americas producing 129 and the Middle East & Africa 103.
Although now the epicentre of austerity, the EU contributes heavily to the American business magazine’s hall of shame. And many of the richest among them have become even more filthy rich. This at a time when most people on the Old Continent have been getting poorer, by 14%, to be exact, or one trillion dollars, according to a recent Credit Suisse study looking at household wealth.
Here’s the highlights from Europe’s bust ‘periphery’, currently the focus of some of the most brutal austerity, for all but a tiny super-elite.
In Portugal, with wages falling in real terms for three straight years, poverty is spreading among the middle class and an actual rate of unemployment that is by some estimates at around 23%, the 99% really are getting ‘screwed’ by the ‘Troika’ – and its punishing bail-out plan. But life for that tiny elite of super wealthy Portuguese couldn’t be better.
Soares dos Santos and his family saw their fortune grow $ 300 million. With an estimated fortune of 3 billion dollars in 2012, the no.2 in the Portuguese ‘ranking’ Alexandre Soares dos Santos is doing handsomely as owner of Jerónimo Martins, which has more than 2,500 stores in Portugal and Poland.
Then there’s Belmiro de Azevedo, the third richest Portuguese, who got richer by $500 million. He’s now worth $1.45 billion. The source of his vast wealth is Sonae, which owns the Modelo Continente supermarkets, shopping centers and fixed and mobile communications services (through Sonaecom), with operations and investments in 65 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kazakhstan. Sonae’s share price rose more than 50%, says Forbes.
Seventy-eight year old Américo Amorim, the global king of cork, actually saw a fall of $300 million in his assets, due to the drop in the price of his oil and gas holding company, Galp Energia. But he remains Portugal’s top fat cat, with a fortune estimated at $4.1 billion, 600,000 times the country’s (annual) minimum wage.
In Ireland a phenomenal show of generosity to the failing private banking system has left the ordinary citizens in a state of ‘debt bondage’, as the Wall Street Journal puts it. Still the luck of the Irish has stuck to some, with the country providing five billionaires to the Forbes list.
Pallonji Mistry, owner of the Tata steel empire, became $700 million wealthier over the past year, boosting his net wealth to $10.5 billion, according to Forbes. Son Shapoor, a horse racing enthusiast, was apparently given a stud farm as a birthday gift a few years ago. What will daddy give him with his billionaire bonus this year?
Cell phone tycoon Denis O’Brien is profiting handsomely from Digicel, his mobile phone network provider, which operates in Central America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands. Thanks in part to huge borrowings of the like that only the disgustingly rich can possibly secure, his company managed to expand sales and profits. And now O’Brien is looking to profit from the Burmese, who have been impoverished by years of misrule by a military dictatorship, coupled by international sanctions. He’s become $200 million richer over the past year, presiding over a fortune of $5.2 billion.
Campbell’s soup heir John Dorrance III renounced his U.S. citizenship and moved to Ireland in 1994, ‘presumably to avoid paying capital gains taxes, prior to selling his 10.5% stake in the company in 1995-1996’, says Forbes. He’s currently living a ‘quiet’ life in South Dublin, when, that is, he’s not sunning himself on his yacht in the Bahamas with his Finnish wife. He’s maintained his $2.4 billion fortune.
Italy’s millions are struggling with soaring unemployment, collapsing public services and plummeting living standards, thanks to the tax hikes, budget cuts and counter reforms of Bilderburg club member Mario Monti and his predecessor, the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi. But the ones with billions, like Silvio (who has become $100 million richer), are having a right old Dolce Vita. Twenty three Italians are worth 10 digits or more, with nine more dollar billionaires now part of the exclusive exceptionally wealthy club.
The country’s richest is Michele Ferrero, the patriarch of Italian chocolate dynasty Ferrero Group. No its not miserable Italians trying to cheer themselves up with a naughty treat, but sales in Russia, the U.S., and Brazil that pushed up the value of the group, and Ferrero’s net worth, by $1.4 billion to $20.4 billion, since last year.
Coming in at number 2 is Leonardo Del Vecchio, the king of eyeglasses, who founded and chairs Luxottica, the world’s largest producer and retailer of sunglasses and prescription glasses, with famed brands like Ray-Ban. Del Vecchio’s net worth is nearly $4 billion higher, at $15.3 billion, than in March 2012.
Third place goes to Prada’s Miuccia Prada whose riches almost doubled from $6.8 billion to $12.4 thanks to a giant leap in the luxury goods and clothing company’s share price. Hubbie Patrizio Bertelli, also in the Prada business and a major shareholder, saw his net worth balloon from $3.7 to $6.7 billion
The global boom in luxury goods purchases by the unashamedly prosperous, also saw Giorgio Armani (No. 4 in Italy) get richer – from $7.2 billion to $8.5 billion.
Life is a grotesque tragedy for most Greeks, now into their seventh year of recession, with a million out of work and a third living in poverty. But for the country’s latter day Crassus’, there’s no touching their epic fortunes.
Indeed, two out of the three Greeks on the Forbes list have seen their fortunes grow.
Greek banker and shipping boss Spiros Latsis, age 66, and his family rose in the ranking, as a result of his assets swelling from $2.6 billion to $3.3 billion.
The second-wealthiest Greek on the list is British-born Aristotelis Mistakidis of mining giant Glencore International with a fortune of $2.7 billion, a fall of approximately $100 million from 2011.
The assets of art collector Philippos Niarchos increased by around $100 million to $2.6 billion.
Given the size, wealth and economic woes of the nation, Spain has a disproportionate quality and quantity of billionaires. It has 20 in the global super rich club, a further four added over the past year. This is all the more grotesque if you consider that over this period household wealth dropped by some 18%, through a combination of record unemployment, collapsing wages and house prices, and losses suffered by hundreds of thousands of small shareholders, as banks have gone bust.
Still leading the Spanish superricos on the Forbes list is Amancio Ortega, who is also now number 3 fat cat in the world. The net worth of the former chairman, but still 60% owner of Inditex, best known for its Zara brand, sky-rocketed over the past year, by $19.5 billion to $57 billion, thanks to Inditex’s huge leap in profits. Ortega also has $4 billion worth of property, much of it acquired at bargain prices during the financial downturn that led hundreds of thousands of Spanish to be evicted from their homes.
Ortega’s ex-wife half takes the number 2 spot for Spain. Rosalia Mera holds a 5.1% stake in the $18.1 billion (2011 sales) Inditex. With $6.1 billion, she’s $1.6 billion richer.
Spain’s no.3 fat cat Juan Roig has a 55% stake in the 1,356-store Mercadona grocery chain, the largest in Spain. Thanks to deep price cuts, presumably designed to allow the increasingly destitute Spanish people to feed themselves, Mercadona captured a 22% market share, the largest of any grocer.
While this discounting may have smashed any number of smaller grocers unable to compete, bankrupting the owners and sending their employees to the dole office, it did increase Roig’s fortune by $800 million to $5.5 billion.
The economic crisis has sunk one in six into poverty, put hundreds of thousands out of work, and served as an excuse to undermine hard fought labour rights for millions. But France can still afford to sustain 24 billionaires.
Topping the list is Liliane Bettencourt, who is also the world’s richest women, and globally no. 9, with a treasure chest of $30 billion, which is $6 billion fuller than it was a year ago. Bettencourt and family own more than 30% of L’Oreal, which her father founded. They’ve gotten far richer this year, thanks to a boost in the French cosmetics powerhouse’s share price.
LVMH owners Bernard Arnault & family come in at a close second with $29 billion. The French luxury brand king, who was reported to have been seeking Belgian citizenship last year to dodge the Socialists’ 75% ‘millionaire’s’ income tax, is a lot less rich (poorer is not an appropriate word!) last year.
Francois Pinault & family comes in third with $15 billion. Says Forbes: ‘The French luxury goods mogul got $2 billion richer in the past year thanks to the stock market success of his fashion conglomerate PPR, up about 30% year on year.’ His group owns high-end fashion houses including Gucci, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent. Pinault is 100% owner of Christie’s, which sold $5.3 billion of art at auction in 2012.
Europe’s super power has produced 58 billionaires this year, led by Albrecht family, who take the number 1 and number 3 places, with the number 2 spot, taken by Dieter Schwarz.
The Albrechts and Schwarz are in the hard discount retail business, which is perhaps significant in a country that, thanks to labour counter-reforms and a hyper competitive exchange rate offered by the Euro, unleashed a downward spiral of wage cutting in Europe, adding millions to the ranks of the precariat as well as helping create the economic meltdown in the region today.
The Albrecht’s own Aldi discount store chain had the biggest growth in Ireland and the UK, where punishing austerity programmes have impoverished millions. Karl Albrecht saw his fortune by $600m, to $26 billion while his brother, together with the rest of the family, saw their net wealth swell from $17.8 billion to $18.9 billion. Lidl owner Dieter Schwarz is worth $19.5 billion.
Britain has 35 dollar billionaires. And befitting a nation that still clings to the Monarchy, a member of the nobility, Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, tops the list with $11.4 billion. The 6th Duke of Westminster’s fortune rose by $400 million over the past year, thanks to the booming ‘prime’ property market, which has been inflated by the billions from wealthy Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese, among others, who are fleeing the Eurozone meltdown, abandoning their co-citizens to an ever more miserable fate.
The U.K.’s wealthiest landowner is sitting pretty amid the rising value of real estate in Belgravia, London’s most expensive neighbourhood, where his family trust owns 190 acres (and where homes can sell for $150 million). His Grosvenor Group separately owns real estate on five continents. His family also has 96,000 acres in Scotland, 32,000 acres in Spain and thousands of acres elsewhere in England.
Like the Duke, the UK’s no. 2 in the rich list are also minting it with the UK property market, a safe haven for those members of the global elite, who are joining in an investment strike against jobs and the real economy and instead like using their zillions to speculate in golden bricks and mortar. Once metals traders, doing deals with Russian oligarchs who got disgustingly wealthy by robbing the Russian people blind, David and Simon Reuben reinvented themselves as UK property magnates. The Reuben brothers also now control 48% of all horseracing in the UK. They got $1.5 billion richer last year and are now worth $10.5 billion.
Another property dealing noble, Charles Codogan (no.4), Top Shop’s Phillip and Christina Green (no.5), Virgin’s Richard Branson (no.6), Jeweller Laurence Graffare (no.8) and JCB’s Sir Anthony Bamford are also rather more wealthy ($900 million, $800 million, $400 million and $1.7 billion, $2 billion respectively) than a year ago. And many on the list maintained their wealth.
So in a country where your average worker has seen their pay packet shrink more sharply than anywhere in the region, bar Greece, Cyprus and the Netherlands, it turns out that the billionaires are doing exceedingly well.
We’re not ‘All in it together’.
What his latest Forbes list tells us is that we are not ‘All in it together’. Far from it. So it is hardly surprisingly that there’s a growing clamour to put a cap on the wealth of the rich, reflected in the French 75% income tax on millionaires, the European Commission’s move to reign in bankers bonuses and the Swiss demand for controls on top executives’ pay. But something rather more ambitious is needed. How about, for starters, a comprehensive wealth tax, and a genuine clamp down on tax havens to try and ensure the filthy rich don’t dodge it?